Secret memo reveals 2002 meeting between Bush and Blair in lead up to Iraq War

British soldiers in Iraq
British soldiers fighting in Iraq in March 2003. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Britain's Stop the War Coalition (STWC) published a secret memo early this year — which had been shown to Middle East Eye — detailing the April 2002 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and United States President George W Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

According to STWC: “The weekend meeting has long been identified as a key moment in the buildup to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, but details of what was discussed between the pair have remained a matter of speculation.”

According to STWC, the memo was “written by David Manning, Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, who accompanied him to Crawford" and “sent to Simon McDonald, principal private secretary to foreign secretary Jack Straw, and shared with five other senior British officials…”

The memo outlines discussions held between Bush and Blair, 11 months prior to the invasion, concerning the question of military intervention to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The memo said that while the US Central Command (Centcom) "had no war plan as such ... a very small Centcom cell had recently been established in conditions of great secrecy to look at the detailed military planning".

“When it had done more work," said the memo, "Bush would be ready to agree to UK and US planners sitting down together to examine the options. He wanted us to work through the issues together. Whatever plan emerged we had to ensure victory. We could not afford to fail".

The memo continued: “But it would be essential to ensure that acting against Saddam [Hussein] enhanced rather than diminished regional stability. He had therefore reassured the Turks that there was no question of the break-up of Iraq and the emergence of a Kurdish state.

“But there were nevertheless a number of imponderables.

“He didn’t know who would take Saddam’s place if and when we toppled him.

“But he didn’t much care. He was working on the assumption that anyone would be an improvement.

“Nevertheless Bush accepted we needed to manage the PR aspect of all this with great care.”

Regarding the question of Hussein’s so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), the memo said Bush “accepted we needed to put Saddam on the spot over the [United Nations] inspectors, we should tell him that we wanted proof of his claim that he was not developing WMDs. This could only be forthcoming if UN inspectors were allowed in on the basis that they could go anywhere inside Iraq at any time".

On the timing of possible military action in Iraq, the memo said Bush “would not want to launch any operation before the US Congressional elections in the autumn. Otherwise he would be accused of warmongering for electoral benefit.

“In effect this meant there was a window of opportunity between the beginning of November and the end of February.”

Confirming Blair’s thinking at the time, the memo said: “The PM said no one could doubt the world would be a better place if there were regime change in Iraq. But in going down the inspectors route, we would have to give careful thought to how we framed the ultimatum to Saddam to allow them to do their job.

“Saddam would very probably try to obstruct the inspectors and play for time. This was why it was so important we insisted they must be allowed in at any time and be free to visit any place or installation.

“The PM said we needed an accompanying PR strategy that highlighted the risks of Saddam’s WMD programme and his appalling human rights record. Bush strongly agreed.

“The PM said this approach would be important in managing European public opinion and in helping the President construct an international coalition.

“The PM would emphasise to European partners that Saddam was being given an opportunity to co-operate.

“If, as he expected, Saddam failed to do so, the Europeans would find it very much harder to resist the logic that we must take action to deal with an evil regime that threatens us with its WMD programme.”

Blair offered up further justification for intervention, according to the memo, saying: “The answer had to be that we must think ahead, this was one of the lessons of 9/11: failure to take action in good time meant the risks would only grow and might force us to take much more costly action later…”

Manning then wrote: “The PM later commented to me privately that he had spoken again to Bush about the issue of UN inspectors. Bush had acknowledged that there was just a possibility that Saddam would allow them in and go about their own business. If that happened we would have to adjust our approach accordingly.

“Meanwhile it was worth ramping up the pressure on Saddam and making it plain that if he didn’t accept the inspectors we reserved the right to go in and deal with him.”